BARBECUE No Longer on the Back Burner

More places in the Wilmington area are specializing in the savory, slow-cooked food


N
ick Wallace never wavered as he followed his dream to become an ace pit master. He had been seduced by the pleasures and promises of good barbecue and he’s never had any regrets about that life-changing decision.

Well, that’s not completely true. Wallace admits he did have a couple of second thoughts about his career path the day the pig caught on fire. More on that later.

Wallace is one of the people who have embraced and enhanced the barbecue scene in Delaware, which has never been a hotbed for the savory, slow-cooked food. There are about a jillion Mexican restaurants in Delaware, not to mention Italian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, French and good old American. But there are just a handful dedicated to barbecue.

But those numbers are growing steadily, coinciding, not surprisingly, with the growing number of barbecue enthusiasts. Wallace, the 29-year-old pit master at Limestone BBQ and Bourbon on Limestone Road, says that business has been good since the place opened about a year ago, and it continues to get better as word of mouth spreads.

“People around here love good, authentic barbecue, but they don’t always know where to get the real thing,” Wallace says. “That’s one of the things I really enjoy about this job—educating people about barbecue.”

Wallace grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—in Earleville, a Cecil County town south of the Bohemia River. Barbecue was big in his family, and it was influenced by two distinct branches of it—one of Wallace’s grandfathers was from North Carolina and the other was from West Virginia. It’s that blend of mountain styles that Wallace has brought to Delaware.

“My family really got me into barbecue,” he says. “It was just a big part of our lives and I can’t remember a time when barbecue wasn’t a family affair.”

Nick Wallace, the pit master at Limestone BBQ and Bourbon. Photo Lindsay duPhily

Old Ways the Best

Wallace was about 13 when he knew he wanted to spend his days smoking meats and satisfying customers. As he got older and gained more experience, he also got more experimental with his recipes and approach. But then he realized that the old ways are sometimes the best ways, and that meant leaning more on his North Carolina and West Virginia roots.

“As you cook and you learn, you originally try to get away from the stuff you grew up with,” he says. “But, eventually, you realize that’s what you really want to do—bring back those special favors you’ve loved all of your life.”

Wallace operated a food trailer that specialized in his barbecue, then took a couple of kitchen jobs before landing at Limestone. There, he gets to draw on his two main barbecue influences and also add his own special touches.

“That’s one great thing about barbecue in Delaware,” he says. “We don’t have our own identity, like Carolina or Texas or Memphis, that people are loyal to—and they can be fiercely loyal—so we can serve Carolina ribs and Texas brisket and everyone is happy.”

Locale BBQ Post is another popular barbecue restaurant in Wilmington that hasn’t been around long, and it got its start in a unique way. Dan Sheridan, a restauranteur in the area for many years, turned a personal favorite—gourmet pickles—into a small business in 2012. He sold that specialty to high-end grocery stores like Janssen’s in Greenville and was doing pretty well. But he also realized that the pickle trade wasn’t going to be enough.

“Simple logic tells you that trying to pay the rent with just pickles is difficult,” he says with a laugh. “So I wanted to add something else, and pickles are a natural with barbecue and a lot of the other sides. And I realized that there weren’t a lot of authentic barbecue places in Wilmington.

“It just seemed like a good idea. I thought I had a good product and I liked the neighborhood, I liked being in the city. You never know how things are going to work out in the restaurant business, so we’re really pleased and humbled at the success we’ve had so far. We’re still standing and that’s a good feeling.”

Sheridan says he isn’t surprised by his success, however. He and co-owners Justin Mason and Mike Gallucio did their homework and came away convinced that good, authentic barbecue could be a big hit in Wilmington.

“It’s not that complicated—find a niche and fill it, and do it the right way,” he says. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like barbecue and I’m glad to see Wilmington’s barbecue scene is expanding and I’m glad we’re a part of it.”

Business is Smokin’

Few people have been firing up the smoker longer than Rick Betz, owner and operator of Fat Rick’s Barbecue. The 68-year-old Betz has operated Fat Rick’s in one form or another for more than 30 years, including barbecue restaurants. But now he focuses exclusively on the catering trade, and he says business has never been better.

A brisket sandwich on a bacon biscuit from Locale BBQ. Photo Tim Hawk

“Barbecue is one of the fastest growing segments in the food industry,” Betz says.

As any barbecue fan knows, there are different kinds of sauces and rubs used in barbecue and that is often determined by the section of the country you come from or simply what your taste buds command you to like, whether it’s the sweet and tangy Kansas City style, the dry-rub Memphis style, the pecan-smoked Texas style or the kick of the vinegary Carolina-style.

Like Wallace, Betz says there’s no “best’’ kind of barbecue. It’s all subjective, like rooting for your favorite team, and there’s no wrong answer as long as you stick to the basics.

“Classic American barbecue is the same today as it was 100 years ago,” he says. “And it will be the same 100 years from now. Some guys out there get caught up on coming up with new ways to cook it or come up with new sauces, but it all comes back to the roots of barbecue. And the classic sauces are our claim to fame.”

As for Wallace’s claim to infamy, aka the flaming pig: He was catering a private party for about 150 people—fortunately, it was outdoors—when he got distracted and didn’t notice that the dripping fat from the pig had started a roaring blaze in his smoker.

“I panicked while trying to not look like I was panicking, but I didn’t do a very good job,” he says with a laugh. “Fortunately, hardly anybody noticed and the few that did thought it was normal for a pig to catch on fire at a barbecue.”

“That’s when I wondered if I was cut out for this business,” he adds. “But I survived that day and I learned a valuable lesson—never turn your back on a pig.”

Limestone BBQ and Bourbon
2062 Limestone Rd.
274-2085
limestonebbqandbourbon.com

Locale BBQ Post
1014 N. Lincoln St.
510-4929
localebbqpost.com

Fat Rick’s BBQ
1413 Foulk Rd.
345-8863
fatricksbbq.com

So, what do you think? Please comment below.